Facebook could be called “Openbook.”

For the last five years or so, it’s given people the opportunity to tell the world — or at least their friends — everything about themselves. You can find out about people’s interests and hobbies, see their relationship statuses and check out their latest vacation photos.

More companies, including residential HVAC contractors, are discovering that social media websites have business applications as well. Many are establishing accounts on sites such as Facebook.com and Twitter.com. They not only want customers to log on to their pages and “like” them, but to get to know them better.

According to some experts, social media sites are the new business websites. Less than a decade ago, many contractors didn’t think they needed a website. The same is happening with social media. Contractors who currently think they would never use Facebook or Twitter are probably just a few years off — or less — from joining this new marketing revolution.  

Some residential HVAC contractors are already part of social media — and already reaping the benefits.

The ‘second Internet’

Brian Kraff likes to call social media sites like Facebook the “second Internet.” For many consumers, they are no longer just searching for a company website. They like to dig deeper and see what information a brand or company has on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.com, even YouTube.com.

Kraff is the CEO of Market Hardware Inc., a Maryland company that provides website marketing to small companies. Its clients include many residential HVAC companies.

You almost can’t do business without a website, Kraff said. But it can’t just be any ordinary, average website.

“People form an opinion in the first 15 seconds,” he said.

Consumers can tell a professional contractor by the first glimpse at a homepage. The same is true with Facebook pages. That is why Kraff and his team give advice on what contractors can do to develop great Facebook pages and how they can harness other social media outlets.

Kraff said that contractors need to “put up the right content.” Whether on Twitter or Facebook, posts need to be meaningful. He discourages companies from doing too much promotion. If a lot of posts look like advertising pitches, customers may see those posts as spam, which could results in them “unliking you.”

“Post two items a week with meaningful content,” Kraff said.

Ideas for posts include news from inside the company, such as charitable work in the community or spotlighting an employee of the month. It could also be giving customers tips, such as reminding them to change filters or to schedule a furnace tuneup before winter.

Whatever the posts, Kraff suggests contractors let their individuality show.

“Social media really allows you to show your personality from a business perspective,” he said.

When a consumer can see a contractor’s personality, they can identify with them and begin to like them. And according to Kraff, “People buy from people they like.”

Get to know us

The employees at Evergreen State Heat & AC in Everett, Wash., definitely want customers to get to know them. The company is involved in several social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Maps. But one of the first places you can go to get to know the company is on YouTube.

Russ Kimball, owner of Evergreen State, put together a three-minute video that highlights the company and its employees.  All employees have their own videos where they detail who they are, what they do for the company, and what they enjoy most about working there. Those YouTube videos are also linked back to the Evergreen website at www.essmwa.com.

Kimball said the videos are great for prospective customers because “they have checked us out. They feel better about us.” The videos put a face to the company and the technicians that might be coming to a customer’s home.

Evergreen State keeps the interactions with customers going by regularly updating their Facebook and Twitter pages. Kimball said that the company’s salesperson uploads most of the social media content, but the entire company is involved. Technicians will take photos of things they encounter on the job. One technician took a photo of a very dirty and dusty air duct. The photo was uploaded to Facebook with the note “Look what I found in someone’s air ducts today in Burlington. Don’t let your system get this bad.”

The technician suggested customers call the company to have their ducts cleaned.

Technicians also take photos of interesting projects they are working on. In May, the company posted photos of a 15-ton Trane unit being installed at a historic area theater. The post received six “likes” and one follower shared the photo on their page.

Whether Evergreen is sharing tips on Facebook or Twitter, or just sharing photos on unique projects in the community, the desired outcome is the same. According to Kimball, it’s all about “top-of-mind awareness.”           

Real people

Randy Novak of Novak Heating and Air Conditioning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he knows exactly what Kimball is talking about. The company has both a Facebook and Twitter account, and they use the sites not only to stay “top of mind” but to show customers “we have real people.”

Novak said that social media has made it possible to put a face on HVAC companies. This is important to consumers who don’t know whom to turn to when they have a heating or air-conditioning problem.

“It shows that we are not just a fly-by-night outfit,” Novak said.

Novak said the company likes to post what its employees are doing in the community. Last year, the company posted photos of an employee who volunteered as a Salvation Army bell-ringer during the holidays.

“We show the good we do for the community,” he said.

They also share photos from recent installations and provide news on the industry as well as heating and air-conditioning tips.

“We remind them (customers) of filters and other timely things throughout the year. It’s another tool to get awareness for your company,” he said.

Those tips seem to work. Novak has posted reminders about having filters changed or HVAC checks, and the customers respond.

“They say they will call you tomorrow, and they do,” he said.

Customers also post just to say they are thinking of the company. Novak recalled one interaction he had with a follower on Facebook. The person happened to see a company truck driving down the highway. They decided to take a photo of the service vehicle, post it on Facebook and tag the company in the photo.

The company also receives praise from online followers. Satisfied customers will go to Twitter and Facebook and commend Novak service technicians for a job well done.

“We learn some stuff and get some good feedback,” Novak said.

A blogging cat

Consumers are definitely providing positive feedback to Day Heating Co. in Salem, Ore. Some of that might have to do with the company’s mascot, Chuck the cat. But Chuck isn’t just a mascot, he writes the company’s blog—and he has his own Facebook page.

Jim Klopfenstein, president of Day Heating, explained that three years ago, the company found a stray kitten in the middle of the road. After checking the neighborhoods surrounding Day Heating, and not finding an owner,
the business adopted the cat. He was then swiftly put to work as a social media specialist.

Klopfenstein takes care of the blog on Day Heating’s website and writes it in the voice of Chuck.

“The cat has an attitude,” he said. “If the cat could talk, this is how it would talk,” he said.

But Chuck doesn’t just share his sassy kitty wisdom, he provides consumers with heating and cooling tips, writes about different HVAC systems, and how customers can stay energy efficient.

Those blogs are posted approximately once a month at www.dayheating.com, then uploaded to Day Heating’s Facebook and Twitter pages for maximum exposure. Klopfenstein said that people in the community will pop into Day Heating, not because they have a problem with their HVAC system, but to say hello to Chuck.

While Chuck’s blog and his Facebook posts may not generate immediate sales, Klopfenstein said it does

succeed in another important way — it keeps Day Heating memorable with customers. A customer may go years without having to fix their furnace, but once something does go wrong, Day Heating is the first name they think of when it is time to call a professional, he said.

Do it well

This awareness is crucial for all HVAC contractors, and social media sites can help. But Klopfenstein said it can also be a hindrance if not done right.

“It’s a dangerous thing to start,” he said. “If you do it poorly or not regularly it could be a negative. Do it well or don’t do it at all.”

Klopfenstein compares bad Facebook pages to bad webpages. If a consumer goes to the page and finds generic photos, poorly written posts or outdated information, they won’t have much confidence in the company, and won’t take the time to “like” the page.

But social media marketing isn’t going away, Klopfenstein said, and contractors will need to learn to do it well. He explained if you ask anyone between the ages of 16 and 28 if they use the phone book to find a company, they will “laugh at you.” If they want to find something “they hit the Internet button and search.”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email devriesj@bnpmedia.com.